How Anti-GMO Activists Get in the Way of Cutting Pesticide Use
Recently, University of Florida plant geneticists Zhonglin Mou and Kevin Folta, along with their team of graduate students, announced a new method to fight common diseases in fruit plants. Their discovery could drastically reduce the use of fungicides if widely implemented by growers!
Unfortunately, their methods may never be put to use thanks to the controversy surrounding biotechnology.
The research confirms a point that cannot be stressed enough: scientists continue to make agriculture safer and more efficient with the tools of modern genetics, but activists have waged such an effective scare campaign against transgenic crops that the technology often remains unused by industry.
Engineering Disease-Resistant Plants
For the study, the team utilized a common technique called Agrobacterium-Mediated Plant Transformation to test how two plant genes might affect disease progression in the Woodland Strawberry. These genes, AtELP3 and AtELP4, confer enhanced resistance to several plant diseases like anthracnose crown rot, powdery mildew, and angular leaf spot. The researchers demonstrated that the genes affect disease processes in the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana, and the effects translate to the valuable strawberry crop.
By over-expressing the two genes in strawberries, the scientists discovered that the fruit plants possessed enhanced resistance to common crop diseases, just like Arabidopsis thaliana. This discovery, they write, “may hold the potential to mitigate disease symptoms and reduce the use of fungicides in strawberry production.”
But the technique has much broader application. “If it works here, it works anywhere,” Folta said. “Kind of like if the FRAM oil filter fits on your BMW, it probably will work on your Chevy.”
Making Economic Sense
Now, here’s where the story gets more interesting. A Twitter user asked Folta if he was trying to make heads explode by showing that genetic modification could reduce pesticide use on food crops. Folta replied, “No chance. Such technologies would never be even considered. Costs too much to deregulate. We just show that it COULD work if we actually wanted to do good things.”
A little surprised, I asked Folta to confirm that this technique would never be commercialized by fruit growers. His answer: “Small fruit industries are not interested. Costs a lot, tech always changes, takes time, consumer backlash fears. Fungicides are safe and cheap.”
So, thanks to the new research, fruit farmers have a powerful tool at their disposal, but it doesn’t makes economic sense to implement it. For now, the research only informs slower traditional breeding efforts that might produce crops more resistant to disease.
Activist interference is the primary reason this novel approach to disease resistance would be too expensive and time consuming to deregulate. Radical environmentalists are adept at whipping up public hysteria about technologies they don’t like. The result is that consumers buy less (or none) of the product in question. We saw this during the alar scare in the 1980s, when the Natural Resources Defense Council convinced Americans that apples safely treated with the chemical were toxic.
In this case, anti-biotech activists complain that modern agriculture has increased pesticide use. Greenpeace, for instance, whines that “the surge in genetically engineered crops … is one [sic] of the main drivers of increased pesticide use and chemicals in agriculture.” The truth is the exact opposite, as Folta’s study illustrates. The sad irony, then, is that the Malthusians at Greenpeace and other misinformed nonprofits cause the problem they complain about.
Countering the Propaganda
Fruit farmers today don’t want to deal with the prospect of consumers refusing to buy their products because of activist propaganda. “I think the problem is that any GE crops could cause a backlash in consumers,” Folta told me by email. “Right now producers like Florida and other seasonal producers have a good market share. Why jeopardize that?”
Look no further than the Arctic Apple for an example of this problem. This GE apple was approved and is coming to market despite industry fears of consumer backlash. Here, an apple aimed at increasing fruit consumption and decreasing food waste is viewed as a potential liability to the industry, simply because its “unnatural” genetics might scare consumers.
Moreover, waging PR campaigns to counter environmentalist junk science is expensive and often counterproductive, because it legitimizes the threat in the minds of the public. As science writer Michael Shermer pointed out early this year, people convinced by activist fear mongering usually reject contrary evidence. They perceive the conflicting data as a threat to their beliefs and disregard them as industry lies.
The other related problem is that activists will use federal regulations against GM crop developers. As of now, U.S. regulators at the FDA and USDA maintain pretty sensible policies toward food ingredients produced from transgenic plants. It’s relatively easy to bring genetically engineered food to market in America, and activists use that fact to scare the public about “untested GMOs.” The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) does this every time a new variety of produce is made available, even though OCA has been wrong every time.
The problem is not that foods containing ingredients from transgenic plants are dangerous, untested or even impractical. As this episode demonstrates yet again, none of these fears are justified. Genetic modification will continue to create new innovations in agriculture. And if activists would quit yelling and start listening, they’d realize that these innovations are good for all of us.